I love music that changes me, softens the edges, sands down the burrs, raises my hackles. Some songs will forever move me…others not so much. I’ve noticed songs have a useful life with an expiration date just like stock options, yogurt and my hairline. I’m reminded of my coming of age decade, the seventies, when a song by the Bay City Rollers titled, Saturday Night, hit the Top Forty List, and I thought it was the best song ever written, a thought more transitory than a popsicle on a sunny summer street.
My preference in music is the wine cellar over the dairy compartment. Timeless songs that have the shelf life of vintage Cabernet Sauvignon. James Taylor’s Something in the Way She Moves (1967), Bruce Springsteen’s Thunder Road (1975), U2’s Where the Streets Have No Name (1987), The Allman Brothers Blue Skies (1972) and Irving Berlin’s title of the same name, Blue Skies (1926), all have one thing in common. Every time I hear them, they sound great and I want to sing along, tap my foot and smile at someone. Not all songs pluck the chords of our better angels, but these do, and I tend to lean toward those, although I’ve listened to Pearl Jam, Nirvana and the Rolling Stones and admired their artistic groove at times. But like my wife’s tendency to love happy endings in movies and books, my bent is toward those songs that move me to brighter emotional places. So why did I quickly tire of the Bay City Rollers and find the Boss and JT, timeless? I’m no musical savant, but here’s my take. The words have to mean something. I love singing along to Mockingbird by Carly Simon & James Taylor, but would never consider that song great. It’s too silly, albeit fun. So I’m moved by the words, of course, but words alone would simply be poetry. James Taylor’s first hit song about the intimacy of two lovers when combined with his trademark strumming acoustic guitar and his velvet voice move me without fail. “Every now and then the things I lean on lose their meaning, and I find myself careening, into places that I should not let me go. She has the power to go where no one else can find me, yes and to silently remind me, of the happiness and good times that I know…” Or the scintillating guitar riffs of U2’s The Edge embracing these words, “The city’s a flood, and our love turns to rust, We’re beaten and blown by the wind, trampled in dust, I’ll show you a place, high on a desert plain, where the streets have no name.” I once sang those words at the top of my lungs in the midst of 60,000 fans also singing at the top of their lungs. The hair stood out on the back of my neck and I thought this is what heaven is like. Total passion. Perfect harmony. (The song is arguably about heaven, free of tribalism and divided neighborhoods…there is no other side of the railroad tracks where the lesser folk live) The other stuff, melody, pitch, harmony, dissonance, pianissimo, fortissimo, pace, tempo…all these terms are the stuff of subjectivity. We all find our favorite timeless music within the confines of our own musical tuning fork. So to each his own. My brother Greg once asked me what music I was buying and listening to. It was in the middle of the nineties, a decade I considered at the time a musical wasteland. I replied, “I’m not listening to much music these days.” And he responded, “You’ve gotta have music in your life.” For me anyway, my brother was correct. Something transcendent, something ennobling, something guttural, something sublime…like James Taylor’s song, there is something in the way she moves…music that is. Music gives voice to the broken, helps shape our hearts, provides a way to speak to injustice and articulates means in non-threatening tones. Perhaps President Obama and Congress should negotiate the debt ceiling in song, in the manner of the recent movie, Les Miserables, no speaking allowed, just the singing please. It’s worth a shot given the stagnate monological impasse. It’s tough to do anything but see the other guys side of the issue when you are singing Irving Berlin’s Blue Skies. Think I’ll email this to Messrs. Obama and Boehner.